It was the divine feminine in the movement that first drew me to ballet. That, and the striking costumes and the captivating stories. Of course, as a child, I did not see through the veneer of a woman being lifted high above a man’s head, never thought to challenge the patriarchal stories of romance. I grew up wanting to be a ballerina. I wanted to soar through the sky and be spun around endlessly.
When I discovered feminism in college, I came down to earth. I put my love of ballet in the closet since it no longer fit in with my feminist sensibility. I didn’t give up on movement though, discovering Modern and African dance, and yoga. Still, whenever I encountered ballet I felt conflicted, suspending my feminist ideals of equality and gendered physical strength to watch women search for true love—witnessing a dramatic display of scorn acted out on the stage.
These days, I am faced again with where to turn when I reach the corner of love of dance and feminism—not far from the busy intersection of femininity, masculinity and gendered movement. I decided to try and negotiate these windy roads through a new work, Maskulinity: Unfolding Codes of Gender. I wanted to bring my feminist beliefs and perspectives—along with my background as a producer, dancer, and choreographer—into the studio, both to look at the mask behind masculinity and, more broadly, to analyze gender and movement.
Contemporary sociology (and women’s and men’s studies courses at universities and colleges) tells us everything is gendered: sports, music, food, fashion, even colors— not to mention our roles at home and at work. The way women and men walk, sit, stand and greet one another are all steeped in gender conformity. And yet there are places we can go to ask questions about hips swaying, legs kicking, arms reaching, and who supports whom on the dance floor. It’s the world of dance.
Maskulinity examines what it means to be a man and how our culture defines manhood, masculinity(ies) and conventional notions of manliness. The performance reflects my interest in using movement to explore the consequences for individual men and women—and the implications for younger people (male, female, transgendered)—of unmasking masculinity.
In dance, movement between a male and female dancer begins with audience members presuming a sense of sensuality; it is “normal”—usually seen in the context of a story of heterosexual passion. The same movement, however, executed by two men, is often seen through a gay story line if done rhythmically, or as hetero competition if done aggressively, at a faster tempo.
In rehearsals for Maskulinity, when two male dancers move slowly and with passion, I simultaneously found myself feeling uncomfortable and satisfied. I suspect the discomfort comes from my socialization— how I’ve been trained to think about men being intimate with one another. The discomfort surprised me because I am a passionate supporter of gay rights and believe I have never felt homophobic, intellectually or emotionally. Obviously, though, I am not immune to the culture’s messages about men being intimate with each other. Sexualized pop culture rarely shows us two men embracing or, Goddess forbid, dancing together.
As I probe deeper into my feelings I find myself deriving satisfaction knowing that when we are uncomfortable, society (me included) is taking a giant step forward. (I don’t know about you, but I could feel society straining—like growing pains in children—when President Obama and Vice President Biden made public their support for gay marriage equality in May.)
The same movement performed between two women makes me uncomfortable in a different way. It is beautiful and sensual, pleasing to the eye, but I struggle not to accept the culture’s insistence on sexualizing the interactions of the women. Too often work is produced with men in mind as consumers—their fantasies about two women being together. But, if the women’s actual sexual orientation is revealed and they are, in fact, lovers, male viewers are angry; the performance is no longer for them.
Despite the stereotype of the dance world being a gay-friendly environment, it isn’t immune to homophobia. When boys decide to dance, their peers sometimes ridicule them, label them gay—whether they are or not. Still the dance world is way ahead of much of the rest of the culture in being comfortable with gay people. Among the next steps in ending discrimination against gay people is celebrating, not questioning, boys and men who dance. Now is a perfect moment to proclaim that dance is actually manly. Society accepts male nurses—as well as female doctors; it’s time we stop stigmatizing men who dance.
Who Has the Market on Hips?
Working on Maskulinity, I found myself asking the question, “Who has the market on hips?” There is a lot to think about in those two protruding bones that swivel the backside and the pelvis in multiple patterns. Shakira sings about her hips “not lying,” and the late Patrick Swayze’s swiveling hips in Dirty Dancing are forever imprinted in our collective memory. But what about how women and men swivel? Men tend to thrust hips back and forth, suggesting intercourse. Women usually circulate the hips and tilt the pelvis back, lifting the backside in invitation. In Maskulinity, we reversed the roles: inviting the male dancers to swivel their hips and women to thrust theirs back and forth. It was a powerful contradiction of gender stereotypes.
Race and gender intersected in Maskulinity through the collaboration between me, a white female, and Ras Mikey C, an African American male and principal choreographer. We approached the social and political markers that serve as the foundation for Maskulinity differently. Ras doesn’t claim to be a feminist, and that allowed for illuminating debates from our differing perspectives—a real asset to the project. In the research phase of creating Maskulinity, we viewed several social issue documentaries produced by Media Education Foundation founder Sut Jhally, including Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex & Power in Music Video; Codes of Gender: Identity and Performance in Popular Culture; and Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity (featuring the work of Jackson Katz); and Tom Keith’s 2011 film, The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men (all films produced and/or distributed by www.mediaed.org). I paid attention to the objectification of women and the propensity for and the proliferation of violence. Ras approached the stories from the perspective of a dehumanized culture. He was stunned witnessing a cascade of images of sexualized bodies selling entertainment and commercial products contextualized by voiceover analysis of a society run amok. On a spiritual level, he said he felt assaulted. Together, we brought our angles and ideas from the screening room to the studio; the dancers could contend with them in rehearsal.
Part of Maskulinity involves men competing for the attention of a woman, but it evolves into being more about the men’s relationship with each other than about her. Eventually the men become angry at her uninterest in them and they use her body as a way to express their anger—and their aggression towards each other. One of the dancers is the “bystander”—frustrated and helpless, and unable to locate his moral compass, lacking the courage to intervene. The inspiration for the story came from the chapter “Party Rape” in Michael Kimmel’s important 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.
Without context, the audience would most likely believe a romantic connection exists between the man and the woman. But the duet, both moving and passionate, tells a different story. Because it follows a violent depiction, it can be read on a level deeper than heterosexual romance. Perhaps the bystander finally has the courage to act and is personally vindicated; or the male “rescues” the female from the violent act; or we see a striking juxtaposition of tender sensuality between a man and a woman rather than witnessing a woman’s body being violently flung around. Ras, who created the duet, and I see it differently. He was inspired by the tenderness between the two dancers, and sees a story about healing; I see a man contending with his complicity, powerlessness and urgency to finally intervene. What will audiences see?
We can’t control how audiences will react to Maskulinity. As Voice Male—and men like Sut Jhally, Jackson Katz, and Michael Kimmel, among others—has been long examining, removing the mask from contemporary masculinity is an ongoing undertaking. By creating a work about masculinity and locating it inside a dance world steeped in femininity, the vignettes about manhood, relationships, and violence, among other topics, hopefully will serve as springboard for audiences to enlarge their thinking not just about masculinity(ies) but about the pressing issue of gender in contemporary culture. I still may have my childhood yearning to soar through the sky and twirl endlessly, but now I just might want to be the twirler, the one to lift a man high above my head.
Lacey Byrne is the artistic director of Salix Productions, which creates collaborative performances that illustrate women’s experiences while inspiring change. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ras Mikey C, education director of F.I.V.E. Productions, which employs dance to express urban, contemporary, and cultural ideology, choreographed Maskulinity: Unfolding Codes of Gender. It was performed in Hartford, Connecticut, in June. To learn about future performances—and about their other work—go to www.salixproductions.com, or call 860.921.3176.